'Fallout' is bleak but funny science fission : Pop Culture Happy Hour The new show Fallout is based on a hugely successful video game series known for its sardonic, very dark comedic sensibility, and its violence. It's set in the game's post-apocalyptic world – an America divided into factions wrestling for control of an irradiated wasteland. When the hopeful Lucy (Ella Purnell) steps out of the comfortable life she's known in an underground vault, the world she's confronted with is harsh, brutal, merciless – and kinda funny.

'Fallout' is bleak but funny science fission

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The new show "Fallout" is based on a hugely successful video game series that's known for its sardonic, very dark comedic sensibility and its violence. It's set in the game's post-apocalyptic world, and America divided into factions wrestling for control of an irradiated wasteland. When one hopeful young woman steps out of the comfortable life she's known in an underground vault, the world she's confronted with is harsh, brutal, merciless and kind of funny.

It's rare that a video game adaptation works as well as this one does, and we're eager to talk about it. I'm Glen Weldon. On this episode of NPR's POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR, we are discussing "Fallout." Joining me today is filmmaker, pop culture critic and iHeartRadio producer Joelle Monique. Hey, Joelle.


WELDON: Hey. Also with us is cultural critic and journalist Soraya Nadia McDonald. Hello, Soraya.


WELDON: Hello. So, "Fallout" takes place more than 200 years after bombs dropped on America, and what remains is a nuclear wasteland. But before the bomb, some lucky few repaired to a series of vaults or retro-future fallout shelters where they waited for the moment to return to the surface. We follow three characters from different walks of this post-apocalyptic life. There's Lucy, an idealistic young woman born and raised in Vault 33. She's played by Ella Purnell.


ELLA PURNELL: (As Lucy MacLean) My reproductive organs are intact, my hygiene well-maintained, and yet, I have been unable to find a suitable marriage partner - at least one I'm not related to. And we have rules about that for a reason.

WELDON: When something bad happens, she decides to set out onto the surface where her naivety gradually gives way to baddassery. Aaron Moten plays Maximus, who's a member of the Brotherhood of Steel, a military faction consisting of knights in atomic power armor and their humble squires.


AARON MOTEN: (As Maximus) It is a knight's duty to better this fallen world. You don't deserve that armor.

WELDON: And then there's The Ghoul, a ruthless bounty hunter who's been turned into a skeleton-like monster by radiation. We learn more about his past as the series progresses. He's played by Walton Goggins.


WALTON GOGGINS: (As The Ghoul) But us cowpokes, we take it as it comes, right?

WELDON: All three are looking for exactly the same artifact, and that search will cause their lives to intersect and diverge multiple times over the course of the season. All eight episodes of "Fallout" are streaming now on Prime. We should note that Amazon supports NPR and pays to distribute some of our content. Joelle, let me start with you. You have not played the game, but you are familiar with it from watching others play it. So what'd you think of the show?

MONIQUE: Yeah. OK. This series was so fun. Like, I had a really good time. The retro-futurism aspect really spoke to me. I thought it was, like, beautiful, the mix of mid-century with sort of early tech that has sort of been modernized. All of tech seems, like, way oversized in a way that's fun and playful. Like, the design teams must win awards. It was really compelling just to look at.

And then on top of that, really solid performances. Ella Purnell is, like, I don't want to call her a new Emma Stone because that's very reductive, but she gives the same kind of energy. Like, here's very big eyes, like, hyper-intelligent, but kind of goofy and fun. I was, like, I really vibe with this chick. I had so much fun on this journey. It's violent in a fun way if you're into that kind of thing - giant explosions, lots of blood. I do have some thoughts on pacing, and theoretical philosophy that was happening throughout.


MONIQUE: I wouldn't mind just a little bit of tightening up. But overall, can't recommend enough. Would watch again. Really enjoyed the series.

WELDON: All right. That's strong. How about you, Soraya?

MCDONALD: Yes, absolutely. So I have played more hours of Fallout 4 than I'm proud to admit, and yet still haven't beaten the game. But that's OK.

MONIQUE: That's totally fine, Soraya.

MCDONALD: So I've wasted a lot of time doing that. But in regards to the television show, I quite enjoyed this adaptation. I was a little dubious, to be honest, because I still have not-so-great memories of "Westworld" sort of falling apart and the logic of that show just kind of collapsing on itself and being hard to follow.


MCDONALD: But I think Jonathan Nolan, who directed the first three episodes of "Fallout," and therefore, you know, has a large influence on the way it looks and the tone of the show, the way it's going to proceed...


MCDONALD: ...Certainly, I think, has learned a few lessons, maybe from the mistakes of "Westworld." I certainly found myself slowly developing a crush on Maximus who's played by Aaron Moten.


MCDONALD: I find him so endearing as a true believer who wants to do good, much like Lucy MacLean, much like Ella's character. And the two of them, I think, have this wonderful sort of chemistry, you know, as these two rather naive people who are trying to survive in a place where strangers will just as soon cut off your finger as shoot you.


MOTEN: (As Maximus) Now, that right there is the closest thing we've had to an honest exchange so far.

WELDON: But that's the thing. Even the cutting-off-the-finger scene was kind of funny. I mean, I think the reason I dug this is it kind of nails the tone of the games 'cause there's a knife edge it has to walk - right? - 'cause it's the one the games walk. So it has to be bleak, it has to be dark 'cause consider the setting. But if it's too dark and too bleak, you don't want to come back. You need humor. And you have to want to spend time in this world. But if there's far too much humor, you lose the stakes -right? - and you don't care what happens to the characters 'cause it's all a joke.

I think "Last Of Us" and "Walking Dead" lean into the bleak and dark and violent, hoping that you'll believe in the characters and that'll hook you. And a show like - which is not post-apocalyptic, but a show like "The Boys" to me, leans into the humor so hard that the violence and brutality comes off as kind of glib and adolescent and like, look what we're getting away with. For me, this is the Goldilocks series. This is just right. It goes hard...


WELDON: ...But the violence isn't just a joke. It has consequences the characters have to deal with. If someone gets injured, they stay injured. They carry that injury through the rest of the series unless they take a stimpak, which is the thing from the video games that is magic and heals you magically. If they kill someone, you know, it follows them. And it doesn't look like any other apocalyptic series because as you mentioned, Joelle, the retro-futurism, like, a lot of the humor comes from that setting. This kind of Disney Tomorrowland, rocketship fins and robots that do housework. In terms of tone, though, there is one thing the show keeps going back to, which is contrasting sweet, syrupy '50s music over dark and violent images.

MCDONALD: Oh, yes.

WELDON: That's OK if it happens once or twice. It happens two or three times an episode. You do want to see that complicating and iterating a bit. Any other thoughts on the tone?

MCDONALD: You know what I missed?


MCDONALD: And I'm not a person who, you know, I don't hunt for Easter eggs. I'm not obsessive about them. But because I quite enjoyed the way that the songs from the Fallout game are incorporated into the storylines and add so much mirth to them, I did notice the one that I was missing from the Fallout radio station was "Sixty Minute Man."

WELDON: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

MCDONALD: I'm like, come on.

WELDON: Maybe they couldn't get the rights.

MCDONALD: Maybe they'll get there in the next season.

WELDON: Yeah, let me just say there's a lot of old songs played throughout the series, including one in the last episode. Here's a little bit of it. This is the Ink Spots doing "We Three (My Echo, My Shadow And Me)."


THE INK SPOTS: We're not even company. My echo, my shadow and me.

MONIQUE: If you've seen any shows that highly feature between the '20s and 1950s, you've heard these songs before. They're, like, locked into your brain and so...


MONIQUE: ...I had a lot of fun in this jukebox musical style. I was really impressed the way they handled violence. It's so gory. But also the way they handled sex, which I think when we're watching particularly American-made violent films, like, sex kind of always goes hand in hand. Fight scenes and sex scenes are shot similarly. As a person from the Midwest, I was like, I really understand this level of (laughter) repressed sexual energy mixed with prudishness of the society you have to maneuver around. I thought it was really delightful and funny.


DAVE REGISTER: (As Chet) Lucy, I love you.

PURNELL: (As Lucy MacLean) We all know that, Chet. Messing around with your cousin, it's all well and good for kids, but it's not a sustainable long-term sexual practice, you know?

MONIQUE: Yeah, I thought they struck a really nice chord throughout, balancing both of the things, the sex and violence throughout.

MCDONALD: The cousin sex feels almost inevitable.

WELDON: And it's dealt with a matter of factly in one episode where Lucy asks if they want to make love, and your understanding of her understanding of what sex is and his - Maximus' understanding of what sex is very different, and that is played for laughs.


WELDON: Now, I want to go back to your point about structure, though, 'cause this is eight episodes. It's a pretty bingeable eight episodes, I think...


WELDON: ...But there is a style and approach, this tone we're talking about that does invite you back. I do feel some lassitude in the structure here, if only because they keep loading it up with subplots. You know, every vault has a secret that it is hiding.


WELDON: I wasn't mad at that personally because games have side quests, and what is a side quest but an extra subplot, you know? But it also means - the structure means we isolate our three main characters. They spend a lot of time on their own. Were you more interested in one than the other?

MONIQUE: Oh, my gosh. I thought Walton Goggins playing The Ghoul was so compelling to me. And with this character, you flashback in time and then back to the present. And any time we flashback, I'm like, wow, this was really feeding our main storyline. And anytime we're in the present with him, there's such a level of...


MONIQUE: ...Intensity. And also, if you've seen Walton Goggins in any Western, he's playing this archetype where he's villainous, but for good reasons.


PURNELL: (As Lucy MacLean) Why are you doing this?

GOGGINS: (As The Ghoul) Well, I ain't torturing you, sweetheart. I'm using you as bait.

MONIQUE: The world has forced him to be this way. He's doing his best to help protect and reach out to the people he loves, but also he is a straight-up villain. Like, you would not want to cross paths with this guy. And it's so interesting to watch him. I really enjoyed my time with his character. I like all of them. I think my issue is not so much the separation, but I was having difficulty with the subplots. Even though they all feed back into the main narrative, if your big question is what kind of person do you have to be to survive the apocalypse, which I really think is the overarching, like, thought for the series is...


MONIQUE: ...Can you be a good person and survive, or will the apocalypse change you? Then I kind of want to stick with our main three characters. And yeah, I guess, maybe if they had spent more time together, or if the overall series had been tighter, or if it had just been a movie. Honestly, I really feel like "Fallout" the movie would have been really strong because I love everybody's arc. All character's arc are doing great jobs here. They're making poor decisions. You're, like, really struggling with them. Lucy, the main character, is -played by Ella, she's so goody-two-shoes that I'm dying half the time. Like, girl, you are going to be killed. Like, please move, get out of the way. Like, what are we doing? And so all of that energy is really great. But then, it kind of dissipates throughout. It just felt long to me. I just wanted it to be a movie, I think, is kind of how I walked away feeling.

MCDONALD: Yeah. I think the weakest - right? - of the storylines that we're following actually is the politics of the vault. You know, you've got the Betty Pearson character, who is played by Leslie Uggams, who I was absolutely delighted to see. But in terms of what's happening between Vault 31 and Vault 33 and then Vault 32, they kind of lost me. I think those scenes were the ones where I was basically starting to lose interest a bit. And that kind of made me sad because there's another actor who I was really happy to see, Zach Cherry.

WELDON: Yeah, sure.


MCDONALD: You know, he always brings a sort of lightness and levity to whatever he happens to be cast in. Because I did wonder if anyone else had picked up on this, but I didn't say anything about it on social media was the fact that the actor who plays Lucy's father is Kyle MacLachlan. If we're going back to that sort of folksy, Midwestern effect that Ella does so well, you know, one of her catchphrases is okey-dokey. Of course, me being the aged millennial that I am, my brain immediately went back to "Sex And The City."


MCDONALD: And Kyle MacLachlan's character in that series, you know, he's this very sort of waspy, upper-east-sider, rich doctor.

WELDON: That's an interesting connection 'cause I went straight to Agent Dale Cooper from "Twin Peaks" because there is that sort of wholesome quality.

MONIQUE: Oh, of course. Yes.

WELDON: We should mention there's a lot of really great actors who turn up in small parts - Kyle MacLachlan, Sarita Choudhury, Michael Emerson, Zach Cherry, you mentioned, Leslie freaking Uggams. And there are some outright cameos, like one episodes, like Matt Berry and Michael Rapaport and Chris Parnell. At one point, the great character actor Dale Dickey shows up as a shopkeeper.


WELDON: And you're just like, well, we're in good hands now because even if this part...


WELDON: ...Isn't well written...


WELDON: ...She's going to make it better. Now, the creators of the show have said that the three main characters kind of represent different ways of playing the game, right? So, Lucy represents those people who go into the game, and they play as just making every right decision, noble, noble, noble. The Ghoul obviously represents people who just go in and (laughter) want to burn everything and destroy everything. And Maximus is the way most of us play these games - right? - case-by-case decision-making. So we're kind of caught in the middle. And I just want to give a shout-out to what Aaron Moten is bringing. His commitment to making Maximus kind of dumb is so smart.

I mean, the British have a term gormless. This guy's got no gorm. He is dull. He's kind of a mouth breather. He gets plenty of moments of extreme close-up where any other actor would invite you to see the thoughts and the emotions roiling under the surface. And every time he just gives you placid. He just gives you nothing happening. And then there's his Brotherhood of Steel colleague, Thaddeus, who's played by Johnny Pemberton, a really great comedian with a very punchable face and extremely punchable mustache. I kind of hated that character so much in the beginning, but I grew to really love their dynamic.

MONIQUE: Girl, same. Yes.


MOTEN: (As Maximus) His head is what's valuable. We need to find it.

JOHNNY PEMBERTON: (As Thaddeus) Oh, yeah. Smart. Who do you think did this, the girl or The Ghoul?

MOTEN: (As Maximus) The Ghoul, definitely.

WELDON: You slowly get the sense that life on the surface has made life harder, but also stupider, too. This is like, what if "Idiocracy" was an action film whenever they were on screen together? And I really dig it.

MONIQUE: Me too. Their dynamic is really funny. I like the way - without spoiling anything, there's a reveal as to why this very punchable character is the way he is, and it's so touching without being sappy, like, they really find a good middle there so that you who have been conditioned to really, like, loathe this character, like, this guy is scum.


MONIQUE: I kind of like this dude. He's OK.


MONIQUE: Maximus is such an interesting character 'cause to your point, the way that he contrasts these moments of placidity where he's just like, I don't really know what's going on or what to do. I'll just react. That's fine.

MCDONALD: Exactly.

MONIQUE: There's also these very quiet moments where he's faced with the reality of the system he's joined up with, where he is giving you capital-A acting.


MONIQUE: And especially, I think, for something this genre and this action-packed, you can easily get away with less great performances.

MCDONALD: You know, to that point, I think Sarita Choudhury, as Lee Moldaver is another one.

MONIQUE: Wanted so much more.

MCDONALD: Yes. Right. I want to see her more. I also just personally would love to know who is doing her blowout. She always looks fabulous.

MONIQUE: Same thing with Ella's winged eyeliner. I was like, in this apocalypse, for y'all to keep these looks together. Fascinating.

MCDONALD: But yeah, in terms of this sort of moral relativism of this, you know, post-apocalyptic state that we're dealing with, Sarita's character is the one who draws me in the most, especially as we start to get in the latter half of the season. And I don't want to give too much away, so I suppose I should probably just leave it there.

WELDON: And we've already mentioned Ella Purnell, but she has to negotiate so much just to play that role. And for us to not get angry at her for exactly what you mentioned, Joelle, we're like, what are you doing? She's hopeful, she's idealistic, but she's not an idiot. And she can hold her own in a fight. And terrible, terrible things happen to her and keep happening to her and she does get...


WELDON: ...Harder, but she never loses that Leslie Knope, Kimmy Schmidt, okey-dokey vibe. And I think that's so important to the character. That's why we don't feel disillusioned with this part...


WELDON: ...And with this show, because she's the heart, she's the throughline. And she stays true to herself, even as the world around her changes her.


PURNELL: (As Lucy MacLean) I may end up looking like you, but I'll never be like you.

MCDONALD: She has plenty of good reasons to not be a true believer, right? Like, that commonality, again, between Lucy and Maximus, I think, is just a really compelling character-building glue.

MONIQUE: I was just going to say that her choices throughout, particularly the choices she makes around The Ghoul, like, as a performance, we kind of briefly mentioned this finger-cutting scene, which we won't spoil, like, what's happening, but the way she reaches a point of rage in that moment, again, very midwestern. We must be pushed all the way to the edge (laughter) before we reacted. Again, I really think that the writers of the show did such an excellent job with the pilot in setting up her character that you find all of her survival ability in the back half completely believable because they've established it so well up front, and I thought they did a really good job in bringing that character in a way that we could believe her.

WELDON: OK. So as we tape this, "Fallout" Season 2 has not yet been officially announced, but based on the ending of Episode 8, it seems pretty clear they're setting things up for another season. You guys OK with where it ended, or are you looking forward to more?

MONIQUE: I already talked about how I wish this were a tighter movie. But by the time we get to the back half, like, the parts I loved, I loved the opening, and I loved the closing. I thought they were so top tier, like, really engaging. And if you know anything about the video game series, I have never played Fallout, but my brother has played everything, including the mobile game. Where they are, the direction they're headed, and you're like, oh, oh, it's happening. Like, I think fans of the game will be excited.

But even if you're not, as a California girl watching this series, first of all, Californians, brace yourself because you will see so much of your beloved land in complete states of destruction that are so too real. You're like, what have they done to Griffith? Like, poor Santa Monica Pier is dust. My God. It was really difficult watching just from that perspective. But the ending, like, I was like, OK, I'm ready. I thought the stakes were done well. I thought how the characters end up sort of on opposite sides or teamed up in different ways that are surprises from where they started off was really rewarding.

MCDONALD: Exactly.

MONIQUE: I'm, like, really excited to watch Season 2.

WELDON: How about you, Soraya? Are you ready for Season 2?

MCDONALD: Oh, absolutely. This one was one of the ones where I'm just like, OK, how long am I going to have to wait? Which doesn't necessarily happen, you know, very often. Certainly, where we end up by the end of Episode 8, I thought was really strong. I was so compelled, and also, by the end of it, I think, like a lot of other viewers, because I didn't want to exit this world just yet. I found myself going back to Fallout the game.

WELDON: Well, as you can tell, we dig this. Tell us what you think about "Fallout." Find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh. Up next, What Is Making Us Happy This Week?

Now it is time for our favorite segment of this week and every week, What Is Making Us Happy This Week? Soraya, kick us off. What is making you happy this week?

MCDONALD: I am delighted to say that the revival of "The Wiz..."


MCDONALD: ...Has brought me so much joy. I saw it in previews. I think by the time this episode is out, you know, it will have opened on Broadway. It is a sort of multicultural, multicolored delight. I think, more than anything, folks who go to see it will be clamoring for the cast recording album the way I am because, more than anything, I think what stuck with me is just the wonderful vocal arrangements and orchestrations from this new version. But I think people will really enjoy it.

WELDON: Oh, that's fantastic. That's heartening to hear. People like "Wicked." I love "The Wiz." Thank you very much, Soraya McDonald. Joelle Monique, what is making you happy this week?

MONIQUE: OK, I'm coming out of the closet. I like a romantic fiction. It...


MONIQUE: ...Really (laughter) does wonders for me and my soul in between, you know, working 12, 13-hour days and having to read the news and live in this world. I also am a big fan of Audible, and they have a series called "Koreaboo" that is too cute. You've got an English expat whose life is just going crazy. She's like, screw it, I'm moving to Korea. And there you expect her to do the stereotypical romance thing and fall in love with, like, a K-pop idol, and it's going to be like a whole thing. It takes a total right turn. She winds up falling for her landlord's son. It's incredibly cute and sweet and funny. It's written by Shenee Howard. And it's 10 episodes. They're about half an hour long. Super easy read. Delightful. Will pick you up. So cheery. "Koreaboo" on Audible. Check it out.

WELDON: Thank you so much, Joelle. What's making me happy this week? Balatro is a deck-building video game, which means it's basically poker that you play by yourself. So you're dealt this hand and then you have to try to build straights and flushes and threes of a kind, etc. What makes it addictive is its simplicity, its very elegant simplicity. So between hands, you get a chance to buy random jokers and other cards that do different things. This one means you can build a straight with just four cards. This one means, you know, if you use a spade card, you will multiply the points you get by four or whatever.

And as you go through every given run, the amount of points you can get you have to earn on that hand increase. So once you don't make it, that's it. You start over, your jokers go away, you start from zero. You keep playing and playing and playing because moments happen when the jokers you have assembled interact with each other. And when they do...


WELDON: ...You see the points multiplying exponentially, and you feel just completely invulnerable. And producer Liz Metzger mentioned this game in one of our daily stand-ups and so I checked it out, right? And when I looked up, it was the next day. So, fair warning. Balatro is coming, and it's going to suck up your damn day. That is the video game Balatro. This game is available on Steam and Switch and PlayStation and Xbox. And that is what is making me happy this week. If you want links for what we recommended, plus some more recommendations, sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. And that brings us to the end of our show. Joelle Monique, Soraya Nadia McDonald, thank you so much for being here.

MCDONALD: Thank you.

MONIQUE: Thanks, Glen.

WELDON: This episode was produced by Hafsa Fathima and edited by Mike Katzif. Our supervising producer is Jessica Reedy. And Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thanks for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Glen Weldon, and we'll see you all next week.


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